Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London, UK
The fact that this entire show was Fed-Exed in an envelope from Matthew Higgs’ home in Oakland, California, unpacked and then sent straight to the framers reinforced its sense of thrift and aesthetic prudence. Not Worth Reading (all works 2002) - the work from which the show took its title - was hung in the front gallery at Anthony Wilkinson next to a couple of framed title pages from the books Bad Art and Art for Spastics; you got the impression that Higgs didn’t exactly set out to impress. Yet as a committed bibliophile and archivist, Higgs sees these self-deprecating signature works as ‘found’ Conceptual art; existing pages sourced in antiquarian bookshops and carefully taken from their binding and original context to make ‘unique’ works.
A wall was painted the colour ‘ebb’, a green emulsion from the ‘Tate’ wallpaint range, and a discarded tin was placed in the corner of the room. These and other works, including Art Isn’t Easy, created a strange interpretative dilemma. In essence this was an education room - an essential component in an art gallery if you don’t understand the art - yet here humour disguised a deeper understanding of the levels that operate beneath the work’s straightforward veneer.
What is interesting in the first instance is the simplicity and economy of pieces such as Upside Down and Off Centre. Upside Down was hung - yes, you guessed it - upside down, while Off Centre sat mounted slightly to the right of its frame. Far from being straightforward, this self-referentiality was given a twist with I Married an Artist. Speaking mockingly of the sometimes heroic inclusion of artists in romantic fiction, it presents a pared-down version of Higgs’ previous works that involved the crossing out of text from romantic novels to leave a single line, revealing how the (usually male) artist’s character is portrayed. Given that Higgs himself also recently married an artist and relocated to the US, I Married an Artist obviously riffs on recent events in his own life.
A clunky retrospective sense of play was presented in I Believe In ... Dick Scum. This collaborative work is printed by Bob and Roberta Smith with the moniker of Smith’s musician friend and appears along with a photograph of Scum wielding a three-necked concrete guitar. Authenticity is rendered illusory here: by choosing this particular ready-made book page, Higgs reconfigures Smith’s existing text works that begin ‘I believe in ...’.
If this has implications, it may serve to reflect on the harmony of Higgs’ separate activities. In terms of his joint roles as curator, writer and artist, these text works represent a strategic balance. Pared down, they operate in a neutral manner, their ready-made form escaping the need for any drastic intervention or gesture of action on the artist’s part.
Instead of direct involvement we get subtle changes in the mechanics or ontology of the separate works. Art and Language is a simple diptych that refers to first-generation Conceptualism and the illusory quality of both ‘art’ and ‘language’, while in the back room a more formal shift appears. Dead Straight holds a small spirit level on top of its frame, while Out of Focus and Frame Me! implicate the viewer directly. Out of Focus is an out-of-focus photograph of the self-titled book page, while Frame Me! is pinned to the wall unframed, pleading with us to respond and re-contextualize what we are offered.
Works such as Anyone Can Paint!, Anyone Can Draw! and Anyone Can Sculpt! reveal Higgs’ participatory ethos, while upstairs Art For All and Art for Art’s Sake are followed by the simplest statement of all in Ink on Paper. One work sums up the elusive character of all this. Hidden Art was initially nowhere to be seen. A cursory glance in the gallery office revealed a screw on the wall indicating its original position, while its frame peeped out from a bookshelf in the far corner of the room.
‘Not Worth Reading’ represented a collection of works that are by turns straightforward and preplexing, which is not, however, such a bad thing. While Higgs’ work as an artist ultimately relies on his other practices and interests, these works more often than not reveal unexpected nuances that speak as much of the participatory nature of art as of the impossibility of information and interpretation.